Special article collection on how citizen science is helping solve conservation problems.
By Dr. Elizabeth Ellwood
Successful conservation projects rely on evidence collected in research: you need to understand where your target species lives, how and when it reproduces, what it eats and where it migrates before you can work out a way to protect it.
This places pressure on research teams, and means that if they have to carry out studies with no outside support, there is a limit to the number of species they can protect, and the locations and timespan they can cover.
Citizen science – the collection and analysis of scientific data by the general public – has the ability to expand research taxonomically, geographically and temporally. A well-managed citizen science project can engage people in collecting data on a wide range of species, at national and international scales, and beyond the time frames of funding cycles and grad student availability.
Although citizen science currently has a supportive role in conservation and ecology, an increasing number of researchers are recognizing its benefits and are working with citizen scientists. In this special article collection, we look at some of the ways citizen science is impacting ecology research, and the impact it’s having on conservation.
Engaging the public in research
Citizen science doesn’t just provide a way to collect data; it also engages the general public in scientific issues and can be a powerful way to tackle conservation challenges. In the McKinley (2017) article in the Citizen Science special issue of Biological Conservation, a group of citizen science experts explored how the approach is used today, and how programs can be established. Through workshops and a literature review, they conclude: “Citizen science informs natural resource management, environmental protection, and policymaking and fosters public input and engagement.” The authors call citizen science “a rigorous process of scientific discovery,” one that can produce high-quality data and add to our scientific knowledge. They suggest that many types of projects can benefit from citizen science, as long as they are well designed and include the right method of public participation.
Like any scientific tool, there are limits to what citizen science can accomplish. A major consideration of citizen science is the complexity of the task at hand. A researcher should plan on creating and providing training materials specific to citizen scientists, providing regular feedback to them, and routinely reviewing the data that are collected. With careful planning, the benefits certainly outweigh the risks of citizen science.
If you are new to citizen science and interested in incorporating it into your research methodologies, there is help available. The Citizen Science Association (CSA) is continually creating, updating and revising materials to help researchers effectively use citizen science, such as data standards, best practice documents, and educational materials. Many regulations and frameworks of citizen science are specific to each area of research, and the CSA started a peer-reviewed journal, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, to provide a place to share such details. As a young field, there is still a lot to be learned about citizen science and how to best engage an increasingly curious public.
Social media in citizen science
Many researchers work with citizen scientists and make use of data they collect, and there are a growing number of technological applications and online databases that facilitate this, ensuring the data are high quality and widely available.
One approach is using information on social media sites. In their article in Ecological Informatics, Australian researchers ElQadi et al. (2017) look at the suitability and value of social network sites – specifically the photo sharing site Flickr – to science. These sites can provide a huge amount of data at low cost, and have the potential to provide spatial, temporal, or scale-related information where it would otherwise be unavailable.
However, because it’s often non-specialists uploading photos, they may use common names for species and misclassify images. The team came up with a method for filtering data for reliability and inferring species ranges in line with Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) data standards. Analyzing four case studies – two of insect pollinators and two of flowering plants – the team concluded:
'There are instances where the social network site data clearly complement the existing source, making our technique a valuable means of making repeatable, efficient additions to traditional species distribution data.'
Comprehensive studies are critical to conservation and ecological research, yet they are often beyond the scope of what a single researcher is capable of accomplishing. The extent of today's research questions is often global, e.g., climate change, invasive species, and mass extinctions, and one way to scale-up our efforts to address these questions is with citizen science.
As our demand for research data increases, so will the importance of citizen science. I recommend that any researchers new to citizen science begin by volunteering as a citizen scientist themselves to learn some of the basics and gain a volunteer's perspective. A great place to find projects is at SciStarter. I'd then suggest joining the CSA listserv and reading the latest literature, including the articles in this collection and the recent Biological Conservation Special Issue, “The role of citizen science in biological conservation.”
With this knowledge and experience, a researcher could then start a small citizen science project of their own. It might be tempting to "think big" right from the start, but a small, local project that can be easily managed has a higher chance of success. I'd also highly encourage researchers to reach out to others doing similar research, or citizen science practitioners, for advice, help troubleshooting, and as a way to become more involved in the citizen science community.
This special selection contains articles devoted to the following topics
Global Ecology and Conservation
About the author
Dr. Elizabeth Ellwood is a postdoctoral researcher at Florida State University and iDigBio. Her work focuses on involving the public in digitizing natural history collection specimens and associated records, and understanding the most efficient workflows for this. Citizen scientists have participated by imaging specimens, transcribing label information, and georeferencing specimen collection localities. She is co-founder of the collaborative transcription event, WeDigBio, Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections, which takes place each October. The ultimate goal of these global efforts is to mobilize hundreds of years of biodiversity data for use in research, education, and policy. Libby is also active in improving biodiversity literacy in undergraduate education, broadening diversity in biodiversity science, and researching the effects of climate change on plant and animal phenology.
public engagementmutual learningcitizen scienceco-creationinclusionscientific impactinterdisciplinaritysocial valuemotivation for engagementmethodologyresults sharingunpredictable group dynamicsemotional aspects